Back to the Bush Leagues on Arctic Drilling?

An ocean continues to wait for change

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In the Arctic waters surrounding Alaska, George W. Bush is still president, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the chance to inaugurate a new regime.

Shell Oil recently got the green light from the Department of Interior to drill next summer just off the shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in waters that are an important migratory route for endangered bowhead whales. With numerous decisions on offshore drilling in the Arctic still pending, the looming question is, will Sec. Salazar chart his own course—using science as a guide—or will he continue to make decisions as though Bush were still in charge?

Last summer, Salazar told the magazine American Cowboy, "The science is fundamental to decisions we make. Ignoring the science will imperil important priorities to the United States and our world. Unfortunately, the last administration often ignored the science to get to what it wanted to get to. We will not do that."

On the Arctic, science has spoken, and I hope Sec. Salazar meant what he said.

Marine scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the ocean watchdog that is part of the Department of Commerce, recently submitted comments on a plan the Department of Interior is considering—created by the Bush administration—that would open an unprecedented amount of the Arctic to disruptive offshore oil and gas drilling.

NOAA expressed concern that the drilling plan understates the risks and challenges of an oil spill in Arctic waters, which could have tremendous impact on marine life and economically critical fisheries. Harsh ocean conditions, volatile weather patterns and the prevalence of ice combine to make removal of oil spilled in Arctic waters an exceedingly difficult—if not impossible—task. NOAA scientists also cited how little is understood about the impact of loud seismic testing (used to find oil and gas reserves) and drilling noise on marine wildlife.

To ensure protection of valuable fisheries and other marine life against spills and harmful noise, NOAA recommended that the North Aleutian Basin—which contains the unmatched fisheries of Bristol Bay—as well as sections of the Chukchi Sea—part of the "Polar Bear Seas" and home to endangered bowhead whales—be left out of drilling plans unless research demonstrates industrial activity can be conducted without doing harm.

Voices from NOAA aren’t the only ones calling for a more cautious approach to offshore drilling in Alaska. In mid-September, 400 Ph.D.-level scientists signed a letter to President Obama calling for a "time out from offshore industrial activity [in the U.S. Arctic Ocean] to allow for a precautionary, science-based approach that better assesses the consequences of development in a rapidly changing ecosystem."

Add to that a letter to Sec. Salazar from 70 members of Congress that calls for a deferral of offshore leasing and drilling in the Arctic until research determines "if…where, when, and how" it can occur, and it becomes clear that the sensible choice for Salazar is to give scientists the time they need to further study the Arctic and all of its resources.

Global warming is affecting the Arctic more rapidly than any other place on earth, and the region’s rich marine resources and native communities face a perilous future as a result. This reality makes it that much more critical to adopt a time-out on drilling in Arctic waters until scientific research demonstrates the fragile, complex ecosystem there can withstand it.

Sec. Salazar must choose either to fulfill his stated commitment to science or cater to the profits of the oil and gas industry, imperiling the Arctic’s wildlife and people and reminding us all of the poor environmental stewardship of the Bush years.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”